Rescuers find body on Iranian oil tanker burning in East China Sea. Dozens of crew members still missing

Poor weather hampers efforts to extinguish fire as fears grow of threat from highly toxic cargo spill

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 4:09pm

Rescue crews found the body of one of 32 missing crew members from a burning Iranian oil tanker off China’s east coast on Monday as fire raged for a second day after a collision with a grain ship.

As emergency workers struggled to bring the blaze under control, fears rose that the tanker, which hit the freighter on Saturday night in the East China Sea and burst into flames, could explode and sink, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) reported on Monday.

There was no word on the size of a reported oil spill from the tanker or the threat it posed to the environment but it has the potential to be the worst slick since 1991 when 260,000 tonnes of oil leaked off the Angolan coast.

Poor weather continued to hamper the rescue work, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, as Iranian and Chinese officials confirmed that the remains of one of the 32 missing crew from the tanker was found on board on Monday afternoon.

Mohammad Rastad, head of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organisation, was quoted by the ISNA news agency as saying the body had been sent to Shanghai for identification. The fate of the remaining 31 sailors is not known.

The freighter, which was carrying US grain, suffered limited damage and the 21 crew members, all Chinese nationals, were rescued.

32 missing after Iranian oil tanker collides with Chinese freighter in East China Sea

The Sanchi tanker run by Iran’s top oil shipping operator, National Iranian Tanker Co, collided with the CF Crystal freighter on Saturday night about 160 nautical miles off China’s coast near Shanghai and the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta.

On Monday, CCTV showed footage of crews on various vessels trying to douse the flames as plumes of thick dark smoke continued to billow from the tanker.

Some footage appeared to show the fire had been extinguished but this could not be independently confirmed. China’s Ministry of Transport and maritime safety authorities declined to comment when asked if the fire was out.

“The Chinese government takes maritime accidents like this very seriously, and has already dispatched many search and rescue teams to the scene,” Lu said.

China sent four rescue ships and three clean-up vessels to the site, while South Korea dispatched a ship and a helicopter. An Okinawa-based US Navy P-8A military aircraft searched an area of about 12,350 sq km for crew members.

The Panama-registered tanker was sailing from Iran to South Korea, carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate, an ultralight and highly volatile crude. That is equivalent to just under 1 million barrels, worth about US$60 million, based on global crude oil prices.

Ship tracking data shows the collision occurred in waters not frequently used by large vessels like tankers, dry-bulk carriers or container ships. Most ships travel either closer to the Chinese coast in the west or more nearby to Japan in the east.

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The Ministry of Transport said the CF Crystal was being taken to the port of Luhuashan, just south of Shanghai, where authorities would start an investigation into the cause of the incident.

Toxic gas from the burning oil poses a major risk to crews and the environment.

When condensate meets water, it evaporates quickly and can cause large-scale explosion as it reacts with air and turns into a flammable gas, the transport ministry said.

Trying to contain a spill of condensate, which is extremely low in density, highly toxic and much more explosive than normal crude oil, may be difficult.

When liquid, most condensate is colourless and virtually odourless. Surface spills of condensate are therefore difficult to detect visually, making them hard to manage and contain.

Tankers also carry shipping fuel, known as bunker, which is extremely heavy and toxic when spilled, though much less explosive.

The Shanghai Maritime Bureau’s navigation department said the collision did not affect traffic in and out of Shanghai, one of the world’s busiest and biggest ports, or ports along the Yangtze River.

A spokesman for South Korea’s Hanwha Total Petrochemical, which was due to receive the cargo, said it would use its own stockpiles to replace the lost supplies.